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Former 49ers Jerry Rice, left, and Brent Jones line up a putt on the 2nd green as the San Francisco 49ers and Giants participated in the Google Charity Shootout at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach Tuesday Feb. 8, 2011. The event was a prelude to the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The 49ers playing were Harris Barton, Brent Jones, Dwight Clark and Jerry Rice. The Giants were Mike Krukow, Duane Kuiper, Matt Cain and Cody Ross. (Photo by Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)

Jerry Rice, one of the great 49ers, turns 49 on Thursday. He started his celebration early thanks to a gift from his old team: San Francisco is off to a 4-1 start.

"They have an identity going on," Rice said. "Jim Harbaugh has this team moving in the right direction. The players are starting to believe in themselves right now, and the fans are getting excited here in the Bay Area."

The 13-time Pro Bowl selection is delighted -- but not shocked. He predicted before the season that the 49ers would be fine as long as Harbaugh didn't heap too much responsibility on quarterback Alex Smith.

"And that's exactly what's happened," Rice said.

The Hall of Famer pointed to the 49ers' 48-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last weekend, when Smith attempted only 19 passes. The efficient, understated outing yielded a 127.2 passer rating and three touchdowns.

"You can tell (Smith) is more relaxed. He's not holding on to the ball. His decision-making is so much better," Rice said. "The ball is out of his hands just like that. I think as long as they continue that, they're going to have success.

"All these guys, everybody pitched in -- Frank Gore. Carlos Rogers. Delanie Walker. Vernon Davis. The weight is not on Smith's shoulders, and I think that's why he's playing so well."

Next up is a trip to Detroit, where the 49ers take on the resurgent Lions. Detroit is 5-0 after its impressive performance against the Chicago Bears on Monday night.

"The Lions are on a roll, so this is a perfect matchup for the 49ers to see where they are right now," he said. "We used to live for games like this."

Rice, as always, remains a man on the move. Besides his new job as an analyst for ESPN, he has taken a role as a spokesman for the Foundation of Chiropractic Progress. Rice is on a goodwill circuit for the foundation this week.

He had twice-a-week chiropractic appointments during his playing days, a regimen he learned from former running back Roger Craig in 1986. "After taking so many vicious hits and all that, your body is going to get out of alignment," Rice said.

Rice continues to seek treatment in retirement and found it extra helpful during his "Dancing With the Stars" competition.

Rice, famously, remained productive late into a career that produced NFL records for catches (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdowns (208).

He was 40 at the time of his final 1,000-yard season, in 2002, his second year on the other side of the bay. Rice spent three seasons in Oakland and recalled fondly his time with legendary owner Al Davis, who died Saturday at age 82.

"He was a genius just like Bill Walsh," Rice said. "A lot of people don't realize that he and Bill Walsh had a great, great relationship. Al gave Bill his first coaching job. And even with the Raiders-49ers rivalry and all of that, he and Bill Walsh remained the best of friends."

Rice remembered being summoned to a meeting with Davis before signing as a free agent. The two sat down in an Orange County office and talked football for more than two hours.

"He wanted to make sure I wanted to be a Raider, that I was ready to take on the mystique," Rice said. "His blood -- it was Silver and Black. He was an owner that was just so committed. Just win, baby."

Davis, he said, was nothing like his sometimes sinister public persona.

"He wanted the media to think he was a bad guy -- but that was just to take pressure off the players so that they could focus on football," Rice said. "He was not a bad guy. He was a guy you could go to the bar with, have a beer and just sit and enjoy the conversation."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com.